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Coping with urges to self-harm

The content here talks about self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health problems, which some people may find triggering.

Someone covering someone else with a blanket while sitting on a big hand

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when someone intentionally harms their body. That might look like cutting, scratching, hitting or burning themselves or taking non-lethal overdoses. It can be something quite minor or high-risk. Someone might self-harm frequently or every once in a while. Each individual’s experience of self-harm is unique.

Most people who self-harm don’t want to die. However, self-harm can increase the risk of suicide. That means that someone might unintentionally end their life or the feelings of distress can become more difficult to manage over time and lead to thoughts of suicide.

If you:

  • Think about wanting to die or killing yourself

  • Have made plans to end your life

  • Feel hopeless, like a burden to others or that things will never get any better

  • Have attempted suicide in the past

It’s really important to tell someone how you feel. If you have seriously harmed yourself or feel that you are in immediate danger of doing so, call emergency services or go to your local emergency department. You can also find links to local options for crisis support in the sidebar or here. There are people who can help you and it’s important to talk to someone immediately.

Who self-harms?

There isn't one type of person that self-harms. People of all ages and backgrounds harm themselves. Self-harm often starts in young people and can stop as people get older. However, it can also begin later in life or continue throughout someone’s life. The reasons why someone might start self-harming include experiencing stressful life events such as being bullied, experiencing peer pressure, a relationship breakdown, money problems or bereavement.

People may also self-harm because they have a problem with their mental health such as depression, anxiety, a more severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or problems with drugs and alcohol. It might also be a response to experiencing abuse in their early life. There are effective treatments for these types of problems and it’s important to seek help from your doctor.

Why do people self-harm?

People can self-harm for many different reasons or a combination of reasons. These can include:

  • Trying to cope with difficult emotions, such as sadness, guilt, hopelessness or anger

  • Trying to stop feeling numb or disconnected

  • Trying feel ‘something’

  • Punishing themselves

  • Getting a sense of relief or release

  • Having a sense of control

  • Trying to forget about something distressing

  • Getting an adrenaline rush

  • Trying to let other people know how bad things are

  • Expressing suicidal feelings without taking their own life

The reasons why people self-harm can be complex. If you self-harm regularly, it might feel like the only way to be able to cope with the pain and distress you feel or something unbearable that’s going on in your life.

Self-harm can become a pattern of behavior that’s hard to change. In the short term, it might offer you some relief from distressing thoughts and emotions. However, in the longer term it doesn’t change the underlying issues and those same distressing thoughts and feelings will likely return. Sometimes self-harm can also cause difficult emotions to surface and make things feel even worse.

It’s important to talk to someone and get support. While it can be difficult, you can learn new ways of coping with your emotions.

How can I help myself?

If you regularly self-harm, you don’t have to cope on your own and there are things you can do to help yourself. Here are some steps you can take right now.

Tell someone what’s going on

Quite often people self-harm in secret as they feel ashamed about what’s happening and don't want anyone else to find out.

It’s not easy to talk to someone about your self-harm or the reasons behind it. It’s normal to feel worried about it but it is an important step towards feeling better. Lots of people struggle with their mental health and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s ok to ask for help. It means you are taking charge of your mental health and wellbeing, and doing what you need to do to get better.

How do I talk about self-harming?

When you feel ready, tell someone you trust about what’s going on. That might be a friend, family member or your doctor. You might want to plan what you will say and find a moment where you won’t be interrupted. There’s no right way to tell someone you’re self-harming, the most important thing is to begin the conversation.

You might also want to tell the person what you need right now. For example, do you need someone to listen without judgment, stay with you because you feel unsafe or help you access professional help?

How will someone else react if I tell them what’s going on?

People can react differently when they find out someone they care about is self-harming. They might feel frightened, upset or even angry. By keeping on talking people can usually find a way through together. Try to be patient and as honest as you feel able to.

What if I get a bad reaction?

If you’ve told someone how you feel and they don’t react in the way that you’d hoped, try not to lose heart. If the person doesn’t seem to understand or reacts badly, try talking to someone else. Don’t let a bad experience stop you from getting the support that you need.

Use distraction

One way of managing urges to self-harm is to try and distract yourself. It can help to match a distraction technique with how you feel. For example, if you are feeling sad you might want to do something that soothes you or if you are feeling angry you might want to do something that gives you a release.

To soothe yourself or release stress you could:

  • Go for a walk, and try to notice your surroundings - what can you see/hear/smell?

  • Talk to someone you trust

  • Go to a public place, away from home

  • Do something creative - drawing, writing, music, poetry

  • Wrap yourself in a blanket

  • Allow yourself to cry or sleep

  • Tidy up

  • Take slow, controlled breaths in and out

  • Make yourself something nice to eat

How to release emotions:

  • Listen to loud music, shout and jump around

  • Go for a run or do some physical exercise

  • Use a punching bag or hit something soft like pillows or cushions

  • Tear a piece of paper up into tiny pieces

  • Take a cold shower

You could try out different strategies to see what works for you. It might help to think about things that have helped in the past. When you have a few strategies that work for you, it can help to write them down so you can remind yourself of them when you feel the urge to self-harm.

Delay self-harm

Another strategy that can help is to try and delay self-harm to ride out any difficult emotions you may be experiencing. You could start by delaying self-harming for 5 minutes and use the time to distract yourself. You could tidy up, walk around the block or put some music on. When the time is up, try to delay for another 5 minutes until the urge passes.

Keeping yourself safe

Try to get rid of items that you might use to harm yourself. If that's not possible, try to keep them out of sight or locked away. If you do feel like self-harming, go somewhere else such as a friend's house or a public place. This can help keep you safe.

Try to avoid using drugs and alcohol. They tend to make feelings more intense, skew your judgment, and make it more likely you will self-harm.

Harm reduction

If you don’t feel able to stop yourself from self-harming, try to reduce the harm that may be caused.

Instead of using your usual method of self-harm, you could:

  • Hold an ice cube in your hand

  • Flick your arm with an elastic band

If you do end up self-harming:

  • Make sure you look after any wounds with a first aid kit (clean and dress them and seek medical attention if you need it)

  • Never share any items you use to self-harm

  • Try to forgive yourself and make a plan to get help moving forward

Seek professional help

If you’re struggling to get on top of your self-harming, you might need some professional help. Asking your doctor is a good place to start. There are treatments available that can help you such as talking therapies. You don’t have to struggle alone. Try to be brave and reach out for help.


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